Ways to save (your) energy this winter
With the cost of living crisis well underway and the energy prices looming ominously on the horizon, many of us are feeling the dread of soaring prices like a pending Armageddon. Despite the suggestive title, this is not an article about how you can practically save money in the winter. There are plenty of helpful tips and tricks online to take the edge off the increase in food and energy prices. This article is about your energy; your nervous system and how you choose to spend, regulate and conserve your energy for the coming few months.
Your nervous system is like your gas and electricity usage. Running your heating at home costs you, as does running your nervous system. Learning how to be conservative with the energy you expend and how best to support your system will help in the long run with your reserves and how long you can sustain the stressors that we are all being exposed to at the moment.
Think of your nervous system as a cheetah. Fastest land animal on the planet. It can accelerate, run and dart around at incredible speeds, but it cannot sustain them. Your nervous system is the same. Lightning-fast reactivity should be followed by slow and steady regulation and rest.
(Please note that a dysregulated nervous system is not a bad thing. It’s natural! It’s only a problem when dysregulation becomes chronic, and we are unable to return to regulation and rest.)
So how do we ensure that we have a healthy balance?
Nervous system regulation always, without a doubt, starts with awareness. You don’t know if you need to turn the heating up if you can’t tell if you’re cold or not. Awareness of the nervous system works in the same way. If you aren’t aware of how the stressors in your life are affecting your emotional stability, moods, sleeping patterns and energy levels, then you can’t be aware of how to fix them. Even if you did know, how would you know if your efforts had made any difference?
Taking note of how you feel is more visceral than you might imagine. Feeling anxious is a concept that your mind understands, but your body doesn’t. Your body doesn’t experience conceptually; it experiences anxiety as a tight chest, shallow breathing, and an increased heart rate. Start to think more in these visceral terms and then you’ll be on your way to what we call interoceptive awareness; the awareness of your internal state.
Here are some small practices to help you become aware of what your body is telling you:
Just stop a minute. What do you notice? Is your head full of thoughts and starting to spin out of control with anxieties? How does this malaise make your body feel? Pay close attention to your breathing, your heart rate, and your muscle tone. Don’t try and change anything, just give your body the gift of your momentary attention and see what happens.
Perhaps your body responds positively to the attention, but your mind starts to call even louder. Take a moment to notice in which direction your thoughts are spinning. Clockwise? Anti-clockwise? Whichever way they are spinning try to slow them down gradually and encourage them to spin the other way. What happens when if you manage to do this? Pay careful attention, even the smallest or most fleeting of changes, to how your body or mind responds. Now try and stay with that for a few seconds.
What you’ll notice as you pay attention to these things is that the nervous system begins to regulate. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it takes a bit of practice but giving it your attention more often than not will help to regulate the system. More than that, it will also teach the system how and when to regulate quicker and more effectively in the future!
Get some rest! Research by Dr Walker at the University of California shows us that missing just one night of sleep increases the reactivity of the emotional centers of our brain by a whopping 60%. This means that, when sleep deprived, the amygdala which is partly responsible for the activation of the fight and flight responses to stress is more strongly connected to the limbic (emotional) system of the brain than the more sophisticated, rational prefrontal cortex when we are not well rested. This results in emotional reactivity as opposed to rational responses.
Dr. Walker suggests that "Sleep deprivation fractures the brain mechanisms that regulate key aspects of our mental health. Sleep appears to restore our emotional brain circuits, and in doing so prepares us for the next day's challenges and social interactions."
We’ve all had those moments where we feel a little rattier than if we’d had a good night’s sleep, so make sure that you’re getting to bed at a reasonable time. Furthermore, try to wake up within your natural rhythms. There are plenty of websites and apps that can help you find yours so that you wake up refreshed and ready to take on the day.
Yup, that ‘ol chestnut. It’s here to stay, I’m afraid. However, it doesn’t mean you have to be lifting weights or going on a five-mile run every day. Research shows that getting out once a day and walking can significantly lessen chronic symptoms of anxiety and depression. Just remember, the best exercise you can do is the one you’ll actually do so don’t set your aims so high that you will never reach them! But don’t stop there. When you come back from your walk, or even better still, while you’re on your walk, notice the changes that happen in you. Are you calmer or more tense? Does a certain speed of walking make the body react in a different way, or maybe a certain route is more calming than another. When you get home, take a moment to notice how you feel.
Breathing, is it all they say it is?
Breathing exercises are all the rage and the go-to response for anyone trying to help someone who is struggling with panic or anxiety. There is a good reason for this. Deep diaphragmatic breathing activates the vagal nerve which is, among other things, responsible for activating the part of your nervous system that makes us feel calmer.
While breathing is great, the truth is it’s not always the best thing. As you inhale, your sympathetic nervous system is actually activated resulting in a slight increase in heart rate. Most of us will never be aware of this happening, but depending on your levels of anxiety, your past experiences, and your tolerance for internal changes, deep breathing, especially inhalation, can be triggering and make you feel worse. If this sounds like you, then try to just draw your attention to your breathing as it is. There is no need to force or change anything. Just watch it, as you would observing someone else breathing. Notice how the attention you assign to this influences the rest of your body. Does it start to calm or does something else start to happen for you? Follow it, just be curious. If you start to feel the panic rising, then refer to one of the immediate strategies below.
The above practices are, as the name suggests, things that you can get used to doing long term, and they can be very helpful in any given situation. However, sometimes you need something that has a more immediate positive effect on your nervous system, and some ideas are listed below.
Immediate coping strategies
The self-hug is a well-known strategy for calming the nervous system. Simply wrap your arms around yourself with each hand wrapped as far as it can go around the opposite arm. It needs to be an intentional intervention in that you need to set aside five minutes and take yourself to a place where you’re least likely to be interrupted. Take time to feel the embrace and what effect it has on your internal world.
Feel your edges
Similar to the self-hug, feeling your edges is all about reminding yourself that you begin and end somewhere. As in the self-hug, gently embrace yourself with each hand on the opposite arm and simply rub your hand along the length of your arms. If that isn’t enough you can gently squeeze and release the arms, giving your body a more definite sensation to grab hold of and pull you into the present.
Splashing cold water on your face initiates the diver’s reflex. You can also take a cold shower or press a bag of ice on your cheek while holding your breath. The diver’s reflex stimulates the vagus nerve to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The heart rate slows and blood flow is redirected to the parts of the body that need it. In a way, it’s a signal to conserve energy rather than to expend it in a fight or flight response.
Take in your surroundings. If you feel that it's all too much, take a moment to notice what's around you. What's familiar, what's not? What feels safe, what doesn't? What are you drawn to more than anything else and what happens if you stay staring at that thing for a little while longer? Orienting is a way to help your body acclimatise to the present. By taking a moment to really notice the things around you, you're denying your body and mind their natural urge to take you into the future (even just a few seconds into the future) where worries and fears exist.
This one can actually become a practice just as much as it’s a good pattern interrupter for stress or anxiety. Taking a deep breath in through your nose, you want to exhale through your mouth while making a "VOO" sound. Try and make a sound as low as you can and make it last until the very end of the breath before taking in another breath and repeating it. Do this just two or three times and then rest and notice your body’s response. The vagus nerve runs up either side of your neck and around the back of your ears. By making a low vibration in your larynx, the vagus nerve is stimulated which in turn initiates the parasympathetic system, the brakes of your nervous system.
Again, this can also be a practice but it’s a great way to encourage your nervous system to stay online. If you feel yourself starting to go into a familiar spiral, reach out to someone. You don’t need to tell them how you’re feeling (unless you want to).
The idea is to initiate social engagement with anyone. Depending on our past experiences, our social engagement system (ventral vagal) is accessible to us immediately and helps us to remain flexible to change and thus cope with stressors in our lives. It is important to note that our social engagement system is difficult, if not impossible, to activate when we’re in a full-blown panic or shut down. Engaging socially should be seen as a way of interrupting the downward trend of nervous system dysregulation. This brings us full circle to awareness. Being aware of your nervous system state will help you to initiate coping strategies to prevent chronic or sustained dysregulation.
There is a wealth of information out there about how to help to regulate your nervous system, but it can become overwhelming. These are just a handful of practices to get started with. If you find them helpful, why not share them with your friends and family as we all traverse the great wide unknown this winter?
If you feel you need more help and guidance, find a practitioner on the Counselling Directory with training and experience in working somatically.
If you have any underlying health conditions, please check with a doctor before trying some of these practices.